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Electoral reform could open the door to splinter parties in the House of Commons. Under a typical proportional-representation system, any party that gets above a floor of, say, 5 per cent of the national vote, is entitled to representation in the House of Commons.DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

Are you comfortable with the idea of a political party with seats in the House of Commons that wants to keep immigrants out of this country? Or that would limit a woman's right to an abortion? If you think about it, your answer may be yes.

A special parliamentary committee meets this week to consider the question of whether and how to reform Canada's first-past-the-post system for electing Members of Parliament. Liberal, NDP and Green MPs are likely to agree to some form of proportional representation (PR), in which some MPs are elected to ridings and others are added based on the party's share of the popular vote.

The Conservatives are likely to support the existing system, and to demand that no reform proceed without a referendum. This could all come to a head quite quickly, because the committee must submit its report by Dec. 1.

EXPLAINER: Everything you wanted to know about electoral reform

A central question is whether Canada would be better or worse off with splinter parties – small parties holding extreme views out of sync with the mainstream. Such parties would be almost inevitable under PR.

Consider, for example, the question of immigration. Canada admits so many immigrants each year that 20 per cent of us were born overseas. All political parties support this policy, even though the number of Canadians who believe the federal government lets in too many immigrants has climbed from about a quarter in 2005 to almost half (46 per cent) last year, according to Ekos.

Under a typical proportional-representation system, any party that gets above a floor of, say, 5 per cent of the national vote, is entitled to representation in the House of Commons. So moving to PR could give us a Canada First Party dedicated to closing the door to newcomers.

On the abortion issue, all national political parties are pro-choice. But in an Ipsos poll earlier this year, only 60 per cent of Canadians said abortion should be available to any woman who wants one. Twenty-one per cent believe abortion should be permitted only in circumstances such as a case of rape; 8 per cent would permit abortion only if the life of the mother were in danger; and 3 per cent would ban abortion completely. How would Canadians feel about a Right to Life Party in the House?

Or put it all together: How many voters would support an anti-immigrant, anti-abortion, anti-sex-ed, anti-gay, pro-gun political party led by a forceful, charismatic leader – someone such as Donald Trump, or France's Marine Le Pen? Do we want that in our country?

Remember: Under proportional representation, majority government is almost impossible. Governments are made up of coalitions of major and minor parties. A populist, nativist, socially conservative party could end up in a such a coalition, with seats at the cabinet table.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen, who is on the committee, believes that we should, if not support, at least tolerate such a party.

"For those who believe that abortion is their No. 1 issue, for those who hold values that are not being promulgated by the parties right now, they, too, deserve a voice," he said in an interview.

Donald Trump, Mr. Cullen believes, is the Republican presidential nominee because millions of voters lashed out against party elites who refused to respect their concerns.

As for those who fear that moving to PR would smash the national parties, leading to the rise of not only ideological but regional splinter parties, Green Leader Elizabeth May points out that the 1993 election gave us the Bloc Québécois as the official opposition.

"The voting system privileges those parties that are regionally based and divisive," she maintains. "And it also privileges electoral tactics that are wedge issues and divisive."

Nonetheless, a move to proportional representation is almost certain to encourage the kind of polarization that currently bedevils the United States and Europe, but from which Canada has up until now been spared, by giving extreme parties of both the right and left a voice in Parliament.

That may be a good thing or a bad thing. But under PR, it would almost certainly become a thing.

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